The Ottawa Hospital to produce COVID-19 vaccines for clinical trials

A look inside the Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre at The Ottawa Hospital, where COVID-19 vaccine candidates will be produced. The Ottawa Hospital

The Ottawa Hospital will produce three candidate novel coronavirus vaccines ahead of their clinical trials, providing what could be a critical function for Canada’s long-term fight against COVID-19 and other pandemics down the line.

The local hospital’s research institute announced this week that it will manufacture Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals’ Covigenix vaccine candidate ahead of Stage 1 clinical trials. The Ottawa Hospital said it also has deals in place to manufacture two other undisclosed vaccines, but details of those candidates will come at a later date.

The institute is equipped to produce vaccines at its Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre (BMC), where it has been making biological products for roughly a decade and a half.

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These include viruses programmed to fight cancer cells and stem cell therapies, one of which is currently undergoing trials to help repair lung tissues damaged in severe COVID-19 cases.

“There’s really no other centre in Canada that has the full range of capacity that we have when it comes to viruses and vaccines,” says Dr. Duncan Stewart, the executive vice-president of research at The Ottawa Hospital.

“We have been approached by a number of companies because they’re looking for the kinds of expertise and capacity that we have.”

Stewart says the BMC is able to complete “end-to-end” vaccine production in its facilities, including the valuable “fill finish” step wherein a vaccine is put in the final vials with the proper doses and formulation, ready for transportation and injection into a patient.

Once the Covigenix vaccines are made and filled in Ottawa, they’ll be shipped out east to Dalhousie University in Halifax to begin clinical trials.

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Early results show the Covigenix vaccine, which will also be produced back home in Alberta, is stable at room temperatures, meaning it can be transported with fewer logistical problems.

But as Health Canada announced Friday that AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been cleared for Canadian arms, raising the country’s number of approved COVID-19 vaccines to three, what value can Canadian-made shots play in the mass vaccination campaign?

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“You might think, ‘Oh, we have all the vaccines we’re going to need,’” Stewart says, but the rising concerns of coronavirus variants could complicate the global pandemic response.

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Mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 could warrant followup inoculations through booster shots, Stewart says.

“We may need to continually generate, much like how we deal with flu, different iterations of vaccines to address the different variants that may appear to prevent further pandemics from happening.”

Being able to adapt the national response to variants of concern with resources in our own backyard could play a key role in Canada’s long-term efforts to keep COVID-19 and other viral pandemics under control.

“Having that capacity, within Canada, that can be rapidly deployed to address whatever has occurred … is very important. I think we recognize now we were not well-prepared from that point of view,” Stewart says.

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While the BMC is currently equipped with the full suite of equipment needed to manufacture hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses needed to conduct clinical trials, the millions of doses needed for a mass vaccination campaign are currently out of reach.

But Stewart says the team at The Ottawa Hospital has drawn up plans for a two-stage expansion to the site that could one day see it as a manufacturing hub in Canada for vaccines.

The first stage of expansion could see the BMC reach a scale where it can help to immunize the general population through a “fairly modest investment within months,” Stewart says. A year from now, it could take on an even larger expansion that would give it the flexibility to take on large commercial contracts and tackle major health crises more effectively.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity here,” he says.

Stewart says Ottawa residents ought to be proud of the vaccine work being done in the nation’s capital, which, until now, he believes has been fairly under the radar.

“People just assume that it’s happening elsewhere,” he says.

“It’s probably something that the vast majority of people in Ottawa had no idea this type of facility was available.”

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